MY PEOPLE PERISH FOR LACK OF PHILOSOPHY
The anxiety for the resolution of the African crisis and the excitement about the material transformation created by the scientific and technological revolution in the Western dominated global world have only remote, not readily visible utilitarian value for the ailing society, like the philosophical discipline. It is for this reason that the philosophical discipline has been avoided like a plague or treated like a slave in the contemporary world.
To ignore the philosophical because its relevance is not easily discernable is to fail to realize the very strong connection between thought and practice. And to do that is to invite disaster, whether physically, as we have it in Africa, or psychologically, as we feel it in the Western dominated global society. This is the reason why this lecture is provocatively and rhetorically titled 'My people perish for lack of philosophy.'
The discipline of Philosophy as we have said is a tragic figure, constantly being harassed and with its relevance being questioned not only by outsiders but even by the practitioners of the vocation. The tragic fate of the philosophical discipline is a dual situation. Furthermore, the discipline in its critical habit of revisiting its essence through self criticism is constantly under the threat of self annihilation, this discipline as the foundation of other intellectual disciplines is also constantly being challenged by other disciplines as a useless enterprise that should be eliminated for its obscurantism and irrelevance. It is this notion that philosophy is regarded as the first of the so called useless disciplines that Professor Galloway, formerly of our own department of Religious Studies, attempted to defend (Galloway 1956). The sciences, the social sciences and even the remaining humanistic disciplines that philosophy conceived and produced at a time in the history of Western scholarly tradition is now in conspiracy with the policy makers to ensure that the mother discipline is finally shown the way out from the concert of intellectual disciplines.
This act of matricide or a kind of Oedipus complex that the rejection of philosophy by other disciplines implies needs to be resisted for the continued survival of the human race. In reaction to this intended matricide by other disciplines, the Austrian philosopher, Joachim Jung, refers to these disciplines 'as the unfaithful children who show so little gratitude to the mother of sciences, who brought up all of them' (2000: 3). In relation to Africa, it becomes ironic that the neglect of the philosophical venture due to the anxiety for the resolution of the pending crisis in the continent is a grievous mistake. The crisis arose in the first place because the African society has operated on the erroneous assumption that social crisis can only be avoided if the society embraces academic disciplines that can provide immediate material values and ignore those disciplines like philosophy whose depth and rigour make their social relevance not apparent to the uncritical mind.
It is therefore my considered opinion that the present crisis-ridden society of Africa, and indeed the global community is witnessing crisis in diverse dimensions because of the deliberate neglect of the cluster of values that have become associated with the philosophical enterprise. This is the reason why I believe that the biblical concept, 'knowledge' is less appropriate and therefore replaced with the more appropriate word 'philosophy'. It is my well considered belief that perhaps the word 'philosophy' instead of 'knowledge' that appropriately conveys the message and purport of the Bible, became lost during the tedious project of translation of this Biblical passage from the original Hebrew language to English.
The entire product and conclusion of my research in this respect is that human crises in their multidimensional perspective need to be painstakingly and critically reflected upon before a lasting solution can be attained. To disregard the philosophical approach to the crisis because of the depth and rigour of its method is to be impatient and hasty in the quest for the solution to the crisis. Ignoring this long but enduring route of resolving social problems through the adoption of the philosophical perspective is perilous.
The desire of the philosophical venture to produce ideas that will foster positive transformation of the society and the cold reception given it by the society has been something of a tragic irony for the subject of philosophy. The philosophical discipline that strives to attain rational justification of all accepted ideas is considered an irrational or a nonsensical venture.
It is clear that philosophy's unpopularity is due to the erroneous belief that it is mere abstraction that has no relevance to material transformation. But can material improvement be achieved without a deep reflection and critical analysis of the idea that is going to be translated into material facts? It is true that philosophy does not bake bread nor build bridges, but behind the processes of bread baking and bridge making is the mind of a thinker who conceived the very act of bread production and bridge making, though the remote connection between the two may be so remote as not to be easily discernible. The reality is that, with or without this connection, philosophy as a reflective enterprise still has its value that cannot just be dispensed with.
Human civilization, we like to insist, is not essentially and purely just about material production. It occurs when the mind of an individual member of a civilized society is well cultivated and refined. This is what makes the difference between an uncultured people and a cultivated person. This point has been mad brilliantly by rhetorically by Martin Luther King that 'the prosperity of a nation depends not on the strength of its fortifications, not in the beauty of its public buildings; but it consists on the number of [its] cultivated citizens, its men of character and enlightenment.'
Up till today, philosophy is still unpopular among parents and students, and a lot of effort has to be made by the various departments to convince students and their parents that the course is not a breeding place for unrepentant atheists, idealists and fire-eating Marxists. It is hard convincing students of the real nature of philosophy.
Philosophy is considered as a shining light which darkness finds difficult to comprehend. This metaphor is factually and historically apt for, if we consider that knowledge is light, then, philosophy, which is the tool for describing the totality of human knowledge, is surely a kind of illumination. But this illumination has been elusive to the darkness of ignorance that has perennially distorted the image of the enterprise of philosophy.
It is clear then that the task of the philosophy is to engage in rational and critical reflection on the goals, essence and values of human existence and activities. It is established that the philosophical discipline is an abstract but rational engagement with the human challenges. It is an exploration and evaluation of the human condition in society. 'It represents society's most general and most fundamental theoretical self consciousness' Today's philosophers are the custodians of human values, the ones who are trained to acquire the critical and analytical tools for confronting and appraising all issues of standards and values. Philosophy, it has been said, 'elevates and illuminates life'. Philosophy is the beacon light for all other disciplines and all other human activities. The importance and relevance of philosophy is now becoming apparent. Without the illuminating light of philosophy all other human endeavours can be futile.
The philosophical enterprise is the light that illuminates our path in our unending quest for the right way of performing our human activities. Philosophy is the directing force guiding our march to higher civilization. All the talk about the irrelevance of philosophy is due mainly to the fact that the therapy of the philosophical act is of the mind. Just as one cannot hold the light but rather feels it and gets directed by it so is philosophy intangible, but important in guiding all our activities.This ability to produce and sustain higher values for the human society is a testimony to the viability and relevance of philosophy in dealing with the challenges and vicissitudes of the contemporary world and the human condition in general.
We can assert that philosophy, the 'candle of the Lord' as John Locke dubs it, still has the practical value of inculcating the critical attitude that allows us to open our mind to discover those things that are necessary for human advancement. Philosophical knowledge includes the critical appraisal of all our values, norms and ethos. It is interested in the appraisal of our knowledge and the proper way of justifying and disseminating it. Philosophy is preoccupied with the way we manage our social affairs as humans-how we determine and choose our leaders, the process of decision-making in our polities, our natural rights and inclinations as humans are preserved and protected. Philosophy also investigates and analyses human conduct and behaviour in order to ensure that in all these the value of goodness is preserved. In a nutshell, in employing the critical and analytical tool, philosophy strives to realize the highest good for the human race, the good life in its different manifestations. In all that it does, philosophy's belief is that through the employment of the rational faculty, the ideals that should guide all human activities are attainable.
In my career as a researcher in philosophy, I have demonstrated that the challenges facing humanity can only be resolved through the employment of our rational faculty. I have argued persistently that the philosophical discipline cannot be ignored or relegated in this effort. I have maintained that if we do away with the misconception of the philosophical enterprise and regard it for what it is-as the beacon and the vanguard in the human project of using knowledge for transformation and resolution of the human crisis-then the multifarious human problems will be brought under control. But if we refuse and continue to avoid the philosophical perspective in the resolution of our problems, then humanity is heading for perilous times. The implication of this in relation to social and political philosophy is that the rational nature of man clearly demands that only democracy should be the mode of governance that will favour the realisation of the good life for all humans.
The last three decades of African history have been one of an overwhelming crisis of development. This crisis has been described as the inability of the ideas and inventions devised or adopted by the African society for its daily survival to realize the good life for the society and its people. The overwhelming nature of the crisis facing the African people during this period, which also persists till today, has necessitated the coinage of the term, 'Afro-pessimism', which is the feeling that Africa is perpetually and eternally destined for underdevelopment, misery and all that are negative. Africa is, therefore, described as 'the basket case of the world'.
It is seen as a place where nothing good happens. Africa is represented as a society that is intrinsically and naturally destined for servitude and poverty in comparison to other continents of the world. The multidimensional crisis that reached its apogee in the eighties manifests as state illegitimacy, economic depression and social upheavals leading to a breakdown of law and order that generated a situation of 'failed states'- the inability of certain African nation-states to perform their traditional functions. This culminated in the outbreak of civil wars and extermination of a significant number of certain groups. This mass killing has been regarded as genocide or ethnocide as the new word coined precisely for this situation describes it. We have seen this kind of human tragedies in nations like Liberia, Rwanda Sierra-Leone and especially Somalia
In many of my writings, I have challenged the position that the crisis situation is natural and intrinsic to the African society. I have maintained that Africa can be out of the wood if the society adopts the critical attitude and do away with the anachronistic ideas and the erroneous but preponderant feeling that the society in all things ought to be different from the West. These two recommendations-an adoption of the critical and philosophical attitude in all our activities in Africa and also changing the erroneous belief that Africa must be different and parallel to the West-needs to be examined in detail here because they constitute the kernel of my contribution to philosophical knowledge-that is, both as an individual researcher and as a member of a community of philosophy scholars that I have called the 'Ibadan School of Philosophy'.
Why is there crisis and melancholy of unprecedented dimension in the global society today? Why do we have intermittent wars, conflicts and terrorist activities in the world despite the comforts that the scientific inventions have given to us? It is true that the sciences have done well for mankind, and for this reason, the humanities and in particular, the philosophical discipline is always avoided as unnecessary diversions. But despite the unprecedented innovations of science, despite the very stunning capabilities that the scientific venture has provided for us, war still persists, or rather, is, indeed, on the increase because of the availability of sophisticated weapons of mass destruction made possible by science and technology. Human beings are still not happy, and the good life remains elusive. Today, there seems to be some nostalgia for the good old days of limited science but abundant happiness. It is thus true that 'some questions can indeed be answered in the laboratory, while others cannot. One cannot measure happiness in the laboratory'.
The point we are making, is that in our immediate Nigerian society, there is a clutch of crises resulting from the neglect of the philosophical spirit owing to the absence of the philosophical wisdom that should moderate human relations in the society, Africa is a place where chaos seems to reign supreme. In spite of all the global impact of science and technology, we still witness continuing threats of war, economic crises, environmental problems and social unrest. The situation of the global society is that of deep melancholy and want in the midst of plenty.
All these have been happening because of our neglect of philosophy, the foundation of all human knowledge. And where philosophy is not neglected outright, it is completely relegated or deliberately misused so that it does not perform its essential task as the directing influence in the use of reason and the production of ideas. There is a deliberate disconnect between philosophy and the sciences due to the various innovations given to humanity by the scientific and technological revolution. Banished is the democratic spirit of rational communion between all ideas. The spirit of cooperation and democracy, prevalent in the communion between the human and the divine rationality that allows for an exchange of ideas is similarly outlawed.
•Excerpts from an inaugural lecture delivered recently by Professor Owolabi, Dean Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan